9-1-1 for 911: Demand a better dispatch system in Rhode Island

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The Rhode Island Legislature currently takes $8.4 million a year (about 60 percent) from E-911 fees collected from monthly telephone bills to balance the state budget. This misuse of E-911 fees has left our 911 service understaffed, underfunded, and unprepared to serve Rhode Islanders.

The Federal Communications Commission and Representative Lancia recently directed public attention to this matter, leading to an increase in staffing. However, this new staffing only took the resources we devote to 911 from abysmal to inadequate—an inadequacy that puts the people of Rhode Island at unusual risk.

Here’s why 911 funding and operations are so important for Rhode Island. At present, our 911 system lacks GPS, Emergency Medical Dispatch (a process that puts a trained nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant on the line to provide emergency medical instruction), and medical translators. Without GPS, the current cell tower triangulation system can only determine your location within ¾ of a square mile, so callers must know their exact address in order to get help. Without Emergency Medical Dispatch, callers cannot receive pre-arrival medical instruction, such as CPR. Without medical translators, the many speakers of Spanish, French, Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole, and other languages can’t ask for help or get help coherently.

If you live in the city, it’s possible to locate an address, and rescue is usually a minute away. However, it’s more difficult for people in rural areas to accurately describe their location. Even with some of the best Rescue and Ambulance Corps in the state, the response times in rural areas are often 10 to 15 minutes – a response time imposed by distance. Despite fantastic EMTs, paramedics, and other volunteers, 10 to 15 minutes can be the difference between life and death in cases of major trauma or cardiac arrest. Having someone on the phone who can talk a bystander through CPR or other lifesaving techniques can be just that – lifesaving.

If you speak another language, there is nothing more terrifying than needing emergency help and not being able to communicate. This language barrier can prove deadly for non-English speakers, but it can be easily fixed with a medical translator on the line.

So, when the legislature scoops money from EMS, they have been scooping the difference between life and death for Rhode Islanders. In states where there is Emergency Medical Dispatch, the survival rate from a cardiac event outside of the hospital is 50 percent. In Rhode Island, it is 10 percent.

We can and must do better than this.

It’s time for Rhode Islanders to stand up together and demand a better EMS system.  We’re paying for it. Let’s get the decent treatment we deserve.

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